Thursday, February 20, 2014

Another Witch-House Tenant

In a recent post there was discussion of Henry Kuttner’s The Salem Horror (1937)—see A Brother of the Old Ones.  After reading Kuttner’s work, it was interesting to reread the story that was probably the inspiration for The Salem Horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch-House. 

Lovecraft’s story  was published in Weird Tales in July of 1933, along with Clark Ashton Smith’s Cthulhu Mythos inspired Ubbo-Sathla, and another Hazel Heald/H.P. Lovecraft collaboration, The Horror in the Museum.

The Salem Horror and The Dreams in the Witch-House share several interesting similarities and differences.  Alert readers will notice that the witch in Kuttner’s story, ‘Abigail Prinn’ is a likely descendent of Ludvig Prinn, Lovecraft’s fictional author of De Vermis Mysterii.  Abigail Prinn and Lovecraft’s evil old crone, Keziah Mason both disappeared in 1692—evidently a difficult year for witches.  In both stories the lead character succumbs by degrees to the overpowering will of the witch’s evil spirit, and does her bidding almost unconsciously until the final climactic struggle.  Both witches are bent on invoking at least one of the Old Ones.

Of the two stories, Lovecraft’s is by far the most ambitious and elaborate.  The Dreams in the Witch-House is also one of Lovecraft’s most abstract.  His lead character Walter Gilman is a student of “non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics”, as well as occult folklore.  In a wonderful bit of understatement, the author writes

“Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension.”   

Unlike Kutter’s character in The Salem Horror, Gilman actively seeks out the experience of living in a witch-haunted old house.  In fact, it is part of his research—and perhaps Lovecraft’s as well:  how does the supernatural interface with the rigor of science and mathematics?  How can supernatural events be given substantiation and realism through the ‘scientific method’?  (A similar approach can be seen in contemporary TV shows like SyFy’s Ghost Hunters.) 

There is tension between the supernatural elements and science in many of Lovecraft’s later stories.  The irresolvable tension between these very different ways of experiencing phenomena is also reflected in the fact that Lovecraft’s work in the late 1930s is transitional, occurring just on the eve of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction”.  But he was still a horror writer primarily, even this late in his career.
The gist of The Dreams in the Witch-House is a series of dreams and visions that overlap with disturbing events in the real world, (for example, the kidnapping of a child).  It takes place in Arkham, the Lovecraftian version of Salem, Massachusetts.  Kuttner’s story was also set in Salem, and Lovecraft at one point advised Kuttner on the finer points of local geography and architecture.  Both tales employ the device of having the witches’ earthly remains hidden but located in close proximity to the victim of the psychic possession.  Both include a rodent familiar that leads the character into the vortex of the witch’s power.  But Lovecraft’s ‘Brown Jenkin’ is the more horrific of the two critters, almost as monstrous as the witch herself.

Near the end, it is remarkable that a crucifix and its chain are used as an effective weapon against Keziah Mason, the witch.  It is not science that saves Gilman—temporarily at least—but the religious and superstitious beliefs of his Polish housemates.  Lovecraft uses a similar motif in Psychopompos (1919), where a crucifix wards off a pack of wolves led by a vengeful were-wolf.  (Recall that in Kuttner’s story the witch’s familiar was held at bay with a simple cross marked on the floor in front of its burrow.)  It is fascinating that the work of this avowed atheist is filled with Christian imagery from the very beginning of his career.

Typical of Lovecraft’s later work, there are significantly more characters in The Dreams in the Witch-House.  The story is written in the third person, without Lovecraft’s more typical first person narrator.  There is greater differentiation beyond the typical autobiographical core of a Lovecraft story. This appears to be a kind of progression in Lovecraft’s work over time, as he gained skill with managing more than one character in a story.   Several of the characters are interesting monsters: the witch, her familiar, and the mysterious ‘black man’—who may be the Lovecraftian messenger god Nyarlathotep. Walter Gilman, the lead character also interacts with a fellow student and some stereotyped housemates of Polish ancestry.

The Dreams in the Witch-House is essentially about psychic possession, a theme that Lovecraft has handled very ably in a number of his short stories and novellas, among them The Haunter of the Dark (1936), The Shadow Out of Time (1936) The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), and The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941). To a certain extent, the theme is present in earlier tales such as The Rats in the Walls (1924) and Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919).  Judging by his fictional output, the author seems to have been preoccupied with the notion of psychic possession especially in his last years. 

(Fans of Lovecraft’s fiction may find it interesting to compare the fate of Robert Blake in The Haunter of the Dark to that of Walter Gilman in The Dreams in the Witch-House.  In both stories the gateway to another dimension is a shape with unusual angles—a “shining trapezohedron” in the first story, and a room with odd angles in The Dreams in the Witch-House.)

Despite his literary skill and considerable scholarship, Lovecraft never completed high school and was unable to attend college.  One can speculate whether the character of Walter Gilman represents a kind of wish fulfillment for the author:  to at least imagine being a brilliant university student doomed by a hazardous inquiry.

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